Tuesday, September 06, 2011

Evacuating Notre Dame Stadium

In the past 13 years of attending games at Notre Dame Stadium, I've sat in a pile of ice and snow, and I've baked on cloudless 95-degree days.  I've seen the crowd cheer for a squirrel running into the end zone when the Notre Dame offense could't, and I've seen sprinklers try to stop Pittsburgh when the Notre Dame defense couldn't.  But I'd never had to evacuate the stadium until Saturday - and neither had anyone else.

Saturday started as one of those cloudless 95-degree days.  When PA announcer Mike Collins did his usual pregame weather report, he got wild cheers when he mentioned they were tracking storms headed to the stadium, since rain sounded like quite a relief at that point.  I had also seen a weather report that called for possible showers, but they didn't look possible at that point.

Towards the end of the first half, there was a brief but refreshing shower.  They sky still didn't have any storm clouds though - at least until the end of the half.  As the band was running on the field for their halftime show, Collins asked them to stay on the sideline.  Immediately after that, he asked them to seek shelter in the tunnel.  Then, the now infamous announcement came:

"Would Usher 800 please report to the press box?"

While still in school, I knew a student who had gotten a job as an usher after graduation.  This was briefly after 9/11, and he had told us that a message calling usher 900-something to the press box was code for a terrorist attack.  So I knew this message was a similar emergency code.  Sure enough, minutes later we were being asked to seek shelter.

Fans were given the option of simply staying on the concourse, or moving to one of the nearby buildings.  One of the buildings mentioned was Fitzpatrick, the engineering building.  I figured that would be our best bet.  One, our group wouldn't have to stand on a packed concourse for an undetermined amount of time.  Two, we'd have easy access to restrooms and vending machines in a building that probably wouldn't be ask crowded as the other options mentioned (among them DeBartolo hall and the Joyce Center).  Plus, Fitz has not one but two basements in case of a tornado - not that one had been mentioned in the weather reports.

The evacuation itself was quite orderly - I don't think people were taking the threat of lighting seriously, especially when it wasn't even raining yet.  In fact, if anything people were slow in leaving the stadium - my wife and I waited close to 10 minutes for my dad and sister to catch up with us from their seats 11 rows above.

My wife, dad, sister, and I set up shop on some couches on Fitzpatrick's second floor, right outside the dean's office.  The wife and I then set out for some vending machines.  When we came back, my dad and sister were nowhere to be found.  It was a bit eerie - their coats and newspapers had been abandoned as if they were kidnapped or needed to flee to the basement.  As it turns out, they had just been invited into the dean's office - by Dr. Brockman, one of my former professors - for freeze pops.

After a two hour delay that included Dr. Brockman and his son stopping outside to play Frisbee between the storms, and a text from my brother-in-law about the press box being hit by lightning, we finally got a message - piped from the stadium press box into the designated evacuation buildings - letting us know the game would be starting again soon.

We made it back to our seats after missing only the kickoff and USF's brief opening drive.  The crowd was electric at that point.  Maybe it was the fact that most of them had been standing around on the concourse for over two hours.  Maybe it was that others had used that as additional drinking time.  Or maybe it was just the announcement that Tommy Rees had taken over for a jumpy Dayne Crist.  But that crowd was ready to go, and the team responded.

Halfway through the fourth quarter, we could see more lightning off to the south of the stadium. On the field, it seemed like NBC was making up for lost commercial time, and I groaned that that was going to cause us to get stuck in another weather delay.  Sure enough, with just under five minutes left in the game, Usher 800 was again called to the press box.

This evacuation was a little less orderly, as most people just wanted to get out and go home at that point.  But there were still no incidents, at least in my section.  My pregnant wife refused to climb the ramp a third time that day, so our group made the decision to pack up for the hotel, and just lie and say that we had stayed if the Irish did in fact come back to win.

We started to make the trek back to White Field, stopping for about 15 minutes under the overhang of the library when it started pouring.  Believe it or not, after 11 hours on campus, that was the first time we had actually gotten rained on.  After the rain let up, we continued to White Field, and heard the announcement about the game resuming as we were passing Stepan Center.  However, we decided to continue on.

We made it to our car shortly after the game resumed, and were amused by a very cranky Don Criqui's take on the events of that day.  We were able to listen to the final touchdown as we were pulling into the hotel parking lot, and see the onside kick from the hotel lobby.  The Irish weren't able to recover that kick, but at that point the group was too concerned about drying off and getting to bed to care.

So, it was a very eventful home opener this year.  And an eventful day for Jim Smith, who in his first game as Head Usher got to call the shots on the first two evacuations in Notre Dame Stadium's 82-year history.